Sunday, January 10, 2010

Deconstructing the Eagles Meltdown Against the Cowboys

Eagles vs. Cowboys

As far as predictions go- you get some right, you get some wrong and some you get wrong by a mile. I missed by a mile on the Cowboys 34-14 blowout of the Eagles, but so did Philadelphia's coaching staff.

Last night, I was off the mark by a wide margin when I picked the Eagles to reverse fortune of a few days earlier and find a way to beat the Cowboys in their postseason rematch. Part of the rationale was based on an expectation that Andy Reid and his coaching staff would make key adjustments to combat the things that were working well against them- and to find ways to exploit Cowboys alignments and schemes.

That did not happen to any discernible degree. The Cowboys largely continued doing much of the same things that had been successful last Sunday- over and over. Wide receiver screens, draw plays, quick slants, double coverage to take away the vertical game, etc to name a few. After countless hours of film study and six days to think about it, Eagles coaches could not come up with any remedies.

Although Sean McDermott has done an admirable job stepping in as defensive coordinator several months ago, the past two games highlighted how much the team misses the late Jim Johnson. Watching the continuing horror show unfold over the last week, the little voice in my head kept saying that "Jim Johnson would never have allowed this to happen."

Besides the blow of losing their beloved leader both as a person and as a coach, the defensive unit also lost their field general when Brian Dawkins traded in his midnight green for blue and orange. The disastrous end to the season served to highlight a key missing element this season- namely veteran leadership.

McNabb tried to step forward as a more overt leader on the offensive side, but the defensive unit still had a void. Jeremiah Trotter assumed some of this dearth, but being a specialty player and a late addition, it was not the same. Stewart Bradley might have filled some of the void left by Dawkins, but of course, was lost for the season at the outset of training camp.

As far as McNabb goes, he clearly didn't have a good game last evening. He misfired on some throws, sometimes held the ball too long and often seemed tentative.

That aside, the offensive unit's biggest problem stemmed from the tremendous pressure applied by the Cowboys defensive line. And, by doing that with primarily four pass rushers while the Eagles would use a running back and tight end to help protect him, the receivers were usually blanketed.

Its a simple math equation. No matter how talented or elusive your receivers, three in the pattern covered by seven doesn't provide a whole lot of opportunity.

Another offensive anomaly last night was a game plan that almost totally ignored a seasoned veteran of postseason play and one of the best offensive players in team history. Brian Westbrook did not carry the ball one time and looked pretty darned good on the only ball that came his way- a 27-yard catch and run.

This did not look lost on Westbrook either, as he appeared extremely frustrated standing helplessly on the sideline. I can only imagine how pleased the Cowboys players and coaching staff were to see him used to chip block, run an occasional decoy route as a wide receiver or spectate on the sideline. In my book, this was a horrific coaching blunder.

The team's newest weapon, Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson was also largely missing in action. Unfortunately, he was on the field and in the game, but for the third time this season, the Cowboys shut him down in both the passing and return game.

As an aside, I cringed when I saw footage of McNabb playing air guitar and jumping against the Plexiglass tunnel wall before the game. Personally, I don't have a problem with what he did as he was trying to stay loose and it is his personality to clown around, but I knew that it would surely provide more fodder for his detractors.

Watching McNabb last night, I also could not help but to think if the situation was not a little bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. It is difficult to lead a team to a playoff win in the NFL, especially on the road and against a hot, talented team- but this is especially true when someone is being bombarded with negative thoughts and consequences heading into the game.

Like the offensive side, the Eagles defensive unit suffered from a similar math equation. In order to get pressure on Tony Romo, they would often need 6 pass rushers, leaving 5 on 5 in coverage. After a couple early sacks, the Cowboys found a way to buy enough time for Romo to carve them up, even making Roy Williams look like an NFL receiver.

Any notion that the Eagles simply had an off day and were a little flat a week ago was quickly put to rest last night. Make no mistake about it, the Cowboys dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in both games.

After being viewed as a strength in the off season, the offensive line has presented major challenges from training camp through last night's swan song. Sixty percent of the group on the drawing board were not in the line-up in Dallas. Leader Jamaal Jackson went down to injury a couple weeks ago, Stacy Andrews has been a major bust and Shawn Andrews tacked another year onto his rehab program.

Philadelphia's normal defensive scheme favors speed over size, but it became an even larger differential when injuries forced them to play smaller linebackers on anticipated passing downs. The Cowboys exploited this for two weeks by playing to the weakness of the Eagles defenders on the field. The loss of Bradley set this in motion due to the loss of his ability to play stout run defense and drop in coverage.

In the Palace in Dallas, the Eagles compounded their plight by turning the ball over, losing the battle of field position and racking up penalties. As bad as the season finale performance may have been, last night's showing was even worse.

Speaking of penalties and bad performances, it leads me to a brief rant about Ed Hokuli and his officiating crew. Apparently they decided that the game should be about them or didn't realize they had back pockets to stow their flags, because they littered the field all evening.

In the "winner-takes-all" NFL postseason format, it is ridiculous for referees to indiscriminately throw flags on every marginal infraction. As Madden would say, "Let the players play." It is doubtful that the outcome would have been different due to the physical mismatch, but it would be much preferable to see the players have a chance to let that play out without 228 yards in penalties.

In conclusion, the Dallas Cowboys proved over the past week that they are clearly the superior team. Besides outperforming Philadelphia in every phase of the game, they thoroughly out-coached them as well. This is a bitter pill for the Eagles and their fans as the late season six-game winning streak and demonstrated offensive explosiveness prior to visiting the Palace had generated high hopes of a Super Bowl run.

Once again, its back to the drawing board. And, this time, it looks like the Cowboys are raising the bar a little higher.

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